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The Difference of a Year

By Briana Holtzman
Originally appeared in eJewishPhilanthropy, June 29, 2015

[This article is Part 3 in a series about the long-term impact of Jewish teen philanthropy. Jewish teen foundations have successfully engaged a new generation of philanthropists, with thousands of teens giving away millions of grant dollars to nonprofit organizations while learning Jewish values. As part of this series, the Jewish Teen Funders Network releases “Jewish Teen Philanthropy: What is the Long-Term Impact?” a report that features program data and alumni testimonials highlighting the powerful results of participating in Jewish teen philanthropy programs. This report follows the release of “Where Did the Money Go?” JTFN’s biennial survey of Jewish teen foundations’ grantmaking activities.

As part of our mission to create, connect, and support Jewish teen philanthropy programs, JTFN presents this four-part series, which draws upon the experiences of program leaders, staff, and alumni and their families.]

 A lot can happen in just one year. A year ago, I started my work with the Jewish Teen Funders Network working on JTFN’s Foundation Board Incubator, an initiative to launch new high impact, community-wide teen foundations.

Over the course of that year, I attended opening retreats, board meetings, and check presentations for teen foundations all across North America. If the Jewish teen foundation experience only empowered teens with the work of tikkun olam and the responsibility of thoughtful tzedakah – that would be enough. If teen participants learned about the need in their own local, global, Jewish, and secular communities and got to meet nonprofit organizations and professionals making change in the world, well, that would be even better. They do all that each year and it’s pretty impressive, really – but there’s so much more. With each visit and conversation I started to uncover the impact that isn’t quite as visible.

1. Inter-Generational Learning. One of the most consistent things I heard parents share with each other at year-end check presentations was their surprise at how much they themselves had learned throughout the year. Parents knew that their teens would be in for a good experience but had no idea how much it would change their whole family. As teens became board members, they came home from each meeting with practical skills, new experiences, and a lot of questions to share with their families. Conversations transformed from one word answers to deep conversations about values, the way their family gave of their resources, and how they could do more of this together. This kind of dinner table conversation may explain why programs often have multiple siblings participate year after year.

2. Balancing advocacy and humility. As one new teen philanthropy alum noted at the check ceremony in San Diego: no one will be surprised to hear that in a room full of teens there are a lot of strong opinions. Kicking off each academic year, board members learn about challenges plaguing their community and subsequently decide together on a board mission statement. This is among their first experiences holding humility in one hand and advocating for what they believe in the other. For the process to work, for trust to be built in the group, teens quickly learn that they need to take advantage of the opportunity to present their stance but that the conversation is not complete until all have voiced his or her opinion. They converse and come to consensus as a group, learning the difference between self and collective, figuring out how to remain true to their beliefs without compromise while still considering perspectives different than their own. This sets the tone for the rest of the grantmaking process. In one allocations meeting, at the end of the program year, I watched as a teen strongly advocated his point, and then genuinely called upon those who felt differently to speak up and be heard ensuring the full group was represented when it came to decision time.

3. Leadership. From the teen leaders, to adult program directors and facilitators to volunteer community champions, it is clear that teen foundations work because teens have the chance to interact with strong leaders.

Community members support the teens by providing expertise, guidance, and in some cases dollars to fund (some or all of) the grantmaking. These leaders swing open the doors and welcome every member of a teen foundation into the world of Jewish philanthropy. In sharing their own experiences and explaining how Jewish values influence their grantmaking, these community champions become strategic giving role models.

Program Directors, the adult staff members – be they rabbis, foundation program officers, educators, or youth professionals – work tirelessly behind the scenes to prep for every meeting and milestone. These dedicated professionals coach teens individually and as a group to ensure that the teen board is ready for whatever comes their way. They maintain important relationships with nonprofit agencies, parents, adult volunteers, and community professionals throughout the year.

Teens, whether stepping formally into a leadership role, or honing their public speaking, active listening, and consensus decision making skills (just to name a few) step up to lead each other through the processes of grantmaking. It’s no surprise that teens who are involved in Jewish teen foundations remain connected to their Jewish communities, and feel empowered to create their own where they don’t already exist.

4. Professionalism & Trust. Some people say that teens are often infantilized, given too much structure, too little choice, and no real responsibility. Some argue that teens need to be treated like adults, left to make their own decisions, learn consequences, and sometimes without meaningful guidance. On a teen foundation board, teens are treated exactly like teens. They are empowered to find their place and voice in the group, challenged by professionals and peers alike to push the boundaries of comfort and try something different on for size. Some must step up or step back, others might be challenged to tackle something with a group rather than alone. Teens are given the space to both learn and do all in one place, and are trusted to make big decisions with real impact. Adult volunteers and staff pave the way, sharing their knowledge and experience, then step back when it’s time to do the hard work.

It is not just my outside observer eye that sees these things – more importantly, teens feel them. As I visited programs, board members shared what it meant to be a teen: a busy teen with school, homework, family, friends, sports, clubs, jobs, and more, who also chooses to take on this great responsibility. They feel the weight of the commitment on their shoulders, they are eager to make change in their community, and in every single program teens are honored to be treated professionally by CEOs, influential philanthropists, and most importantly, by each other.

After seeing all this impact in just a few months, it is hard to believe that this opportunity doesn’t exist for all Jewish teens. The good news is that it is never too late to start a Jewish teen philanthropy program in your own institution or community and JTFN has all the resources to help you get going.

Briana Holtzman is the Program Director of JTFN’s Teen Foundation Board Incubator, funded by Laura Lauder and the Maimonides Fund, which brings the success and impact of Jewish teen philanthropy programs across North America into new cities around the world. JTFN works closely with each host institution to develop high investment and high intensity community-wide programs.

Visit JTFN’s Foundation Board Incubator page or email briana@jtfn.org to learn more.

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